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Cautious welcome for Islands Bill

THE NEW islands bill has been welcomed by MSPs following its first debate at the Scottish Parliament – but concerns were raised that the legislation may not meet expectations of islanders.

The Scottish Government bill was discussed at Holyrood on Thursday afternoon in a stage one debate. Its principles received overall cross-party support.

But a number of MSPs raised worries that a commitment to “island-proofing” future legislation has already led to heightened expectation from islanders that may not be met.

Amendments to the bill will be brought forward at stage two and three of the process.

Tory MSP Edward Mountain, convener of the rural economy and connectivity committee said “we are concerned there will be a gap in what islanders expect and what islanders get from the bill.”

Liberal Democrat MSP for Orkney Liam McArthur raised the idea of retrospectively applying island-proofing to existing legislation – a proposal which was a recurring theme throughout the debate.

There was also repeated praise for the Our Islands Our Future initiative, which had raised the stake of islands within the Scottish political context.

MSPs also warned against a one size fits all approach to the bill, with a recognition that the make-up of Scotland’s islands vary from one another.

Labour’s Colin Smyth said he hoped the bill would address a “decade of centralisation” at the hands of the SNP but warned that it could be more “evolution than revolution”.

Kenneth Gibson of the SNP said a proposed national islands plan would “increase accountability” and he suggested the bill should not been viewed in isolation but in a wider context of government measures which will benefit rural communities.

The Liberal Democrats’ Mike Rumbles said “islanders and stakeholders would have liked to see objectives included in the bill” and stated that the “process of island-proofing must not turn into a simple tick-box exercise”.

He added that Orkney Islands Council leader James Stockan said retrospectively applying island-proofing to legislation would make a “profound difference” to the islands.

Labour’s Rhoda Grant said the bill was “far too timid” as it stands and added that it needs “high-level objectives” which are not there in its current form.

The Scottish Greens’ John Finnie said that “some of the most resilient and supportive communities in Scotland are within islands and I believe this bill has the potential to be a step in the right direction of empowering these island communities in a manner they deserve.”

Closing the debate, Scottish islands minister Humza Yousaf said “expectation management” was a key feature to the islands bill process.

“Whenever I have travelled to the islands, I have tried to…say that we are doing more than just the islands bill, there is a suite of measures”.

He also agreed with MSPs that the bill should include targets that progress can be viewed against.

Yousaf concluded by calling the bill “absolutely historic” and said he hoped it could “reverse the depopulation of the islands”.